Thursday, October 24, 2013

UN Day #68: What Have We Learned?

Today is United Nations Day, commemorating the 68th anniversary of the coming into force of the organization's founding Charter.

It is an occasion to reflect on what we have learned, not just from the experience of the last two generations, but from a process that began with the creation of such small technical agencies as the International Telegraphic Union (1865), the International Meteorological Organization (1873) and the Universal Postal Union (1874).

They were created to meet the need for international cooperation imposed by the growing use of standardized transport and communications technologies.

International use of the telegraph obviously needed such cooperation; so did the sharing of meteorological information important for shipping and agriculture. The UPU became necessary because the booming volume of mail carried by the railways and steamships made it impossible to continue the old system of weighing and paying for mailbags at each international border; it put in place a multilateral payments system.

Ironically, at the same time as international cooperation was making a quantum jump, the use of industrial technologies led to much higher levels of conflict. Violent competition for the raw materials and markets essential for factory-scale production involved a succession of colonial wars, and they cascaded into the First World War (1915-1919).

In the wake of that "war to end all wars," the major Powers set up the League of Nations, but undermined it comprehensively with a range of aggressions and economic manipulations.

Their no-holds barred economic competition created such instability in world markets that trade went into a decline, and then into a free fall, setting off the Great Depression of the 1930s.   

What happened was that as trade declined, so did manufacturing, and millions of people lost their jobs. As their consumption of goods and services dropped, manufacturing took another hit, and more factories closed, swelling still more the ranks of the unemployed.   

 The League tried to get governments to cooperate in reviving the world economy, but had no success. Governments were too locked into their own defensive-aggressive postures.

The acute misery of millions of Europeans allowed the rise of fascist demagogues like Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy. Britain and France initially supported their rise in the expectation that fascism would counter Communism, which had taken over Russia during WW-I.

The fascists did destroy or weaken the Communist movements in Western Europe, but instead of then confronting the Soviet Union as Britain and France expected, they turned on weaker countries; that set off World War II (1939-1945)

The First World War had killed an estimated 10 million people; the Second took a toll so large it has been impossible to agree on a precise number; various estimates put it between 50 and 70 million.

As the war wound to a close, the United States initiated talks on a successor organization.

President Franklin Roosevelt dubbed his brainchild the "United Nations," but by the time its Charter was signed in San Francisco, he was dead and the nuclear weapons that ended WW-II had destroyed the concept of "collective security" enshrined in the UN Security Council.

The subsequent outbreak of the Cold War and the Soviet acquisition of nuclear weapons effectively stalemated the Security Council for the next 4+ decades.

Another tectonic shift was the Churchill-Ismay coup against American constitutional government in March 1946: it brought into power a military-industrial clique in Washington that pursued a policy of endemic war over the next six decades.

These developments turned the UN into a spare wheel, called into service whenever the imperial Powers needed it, otherwise left to languish in ever-increasing inertia and corruption.

However, those decades also saw the rise of developing countries in the face of tremendous odds, and beginning in the early 1970s, the pursuit of a "New International Economic Order" through intensified cooperation among themselves. Developing countries are now the most dynamic portion of the world economy, and in another decade just three of them, China, India and Brazil, will have more of world GDP than all of Western Europe and the United States.

All these trends, as well as some new ones, are at work in the UN of 2013.

The new ones include the end of American dependence on Middle Eastern oil that has allowed Washington to stop supporting the feudal regimes in that region and a weakening of the unconstitutional power nexus the British had established in Washington.  

The impact of all this on the UN will be profound, but no one can predict the direction of change.

What, for instance, are we to make of Saudi Arabia's refusal to take the Security Council seat it had lobbied for and won?

There is much speculation about Riyadh's U-turn; I suspect it was the realization that US support for its entry into the Council did not mean closer ties but just the opposite.

With the US and Russia closing ranks on Syria and Washington making overtures to Tehran -- Saudi Arabia's primary rival in its own region -- it must have become obvious to Riyadh that Council membership would only bring an uncomfortable level of international accountability.

However the Saudi-Security Council relationship develops, there is little doubt that the international situation is in a rarely seen danger zone, with mutual trust at a low ebb among traditional allies, especially Europe and the United States.

Exactly how dangerous the situation is, we can only guess.

According to Helen Caldicott, the US Army fired the General in charge of its nuclear missiles on a matter of "trust," just as Washington was in the final phase of its debt limit negotiations. That suggests a chilling new implication for the phrase "nuclear option." Did the British bid to destroy the US$ as the world's reserve currency, elicit a starker threat?

Even if nothing like that happened, there are other near doomsday scenarios. There are the continuing uncertainties of the Eurozone and China, the threats to the Indian elections of 2014, and the possibilities for mayhem in Arab-Iran-Israel relations. If any of those situations gets out of hand, it could mushroom into a global disaster. 

What can we say about the UN in such a world scenario?

Not much, but it is grim.

If the power struggle between Britain's hidden Empire and its victims ends up with cataclysmic scenarios, the future of internationalism will depend on who is still standing after the rubble has stopped bouncing.  

If there is no great crisis and the ghost of Empire is laid at last to rest, the UN will have to be radically reinvented for an electronically networked world.

Either way, we're in a period of fateful decision.

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